Digital Humanities or the Humanities made digital? An article review.

Prescott, A.  (2011).  Consumers, creators or commentators? Problems of audience and mission in the digital humanities. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, 2(1-2), 61 – 75.  doi: 10.1177/1474022211428215

A constant question I am grappling with (and probably still will be at the end of week thirteen) is what is digital humanities? And while it may seem that having an answer to this question is um, important considering I’m taking an entire course on it, I would argue that it is okay not to be able to provide a wholly concrete and comprehensive definition of digital humanities.  Mainly because it is still a debated topic, even amongst scholars, and also because DH is an emerging discipline.  Always emerging, some (like Patrick Juola) would say (criticize).

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In his article Consumers, creators or commentators Problems of audience and mission in the digital humanities, Andrew Prescott not only tackles the idea of what digital humanities (DH) is but also who digital humanities scholars should be.  In doing so, he highlights two problems that exist within the digital humanities – ones that emphasize the ‘human’ in digital humanities.  What are these problems?, you may ask.  Well, the title of his article reveals the answer to that quite clearly: the problem of audience and the problem of mission.

Though Prescott raises a number of other points, the issues of identity in DH are the ones that drew my attention and are the ones on which I’ll be reflecting.

On consumers and creators

The first (and second) major identity crises for DHers identified by Prescott is the fact that, in their desire to build (the main point of DH, according to Ramsay), DHers have become consumers of digital content and digital tools, rather than the creators of them (2011, p. 67).   As Prescott (2011) notes,

“while the digital humanities community struggles to achieve a wider scholarly impact, and appears fragmented and preoccupied by internal technical debates, humanities scholars are becoming more and more dependent on digital tools and resources. However, these resources are generally not emerging from the digital humanities community” (p. 64).

He is referring to the digital infrastructures that DH scholars use to produce to their digital humanities projects. Being fairly new to DH, I’m not entirely confident in disagreeing but I do with this.  Requiring digital humanities scholars to create the technology they use for making digital projects (in addition to actually creating the projects themselves), seems over-ambitious and over-demanding to me.   If there are technologies out there that lends themselves well to the creation of digital humanities initiatives, why require that new technologies be created in addition to new projects?  Does this not require digital humanities scholars to place more emphasis on the digital rather than the human? Wouldn’t DHers have an immensely greater amount of time available to devote to their projects if they did not have to fuss with making new technologies to do the same thing existing ones are already doing? Why reinvent the wheel?

Um, for progress, I’m sure some would say.  For making sure that DHers are more than just consumers in the digital world, others might argue.  For respecting the process as much as (or more than) the product.  Well, yes.  But I think this is where collaboration comes into play.  Given that collaboration is touted as part of the spirit of digital humanities, would it not make sense to bring those humanities scholars who are already adept at coding and creating new technologies together with digital humanities scholars who may be adept at the ‘humanities’ part and using digital technologies, but who may not be so good at the actual creation of digital tools? To me, this seems like the best maximization of human capital – new tools can still be created but not under the circumstances Prescott calls for – i.e., all DHers should be creators of new technologies.  Unless I’ve completely missed the point of digital humanities (which I very may have).

While my objection to Prescott’s requirement may be playing into the myth that humanities scholars and digital technologies do not mix, I do not think it plays in to it very far.  This myth focuses more on the idea that the humanities is mainly (or solely, even) a print-based discipline.  As such, humanities scholars (especially those who have been in the field for a well-established length of time), are purported to have a great deal of aversion to putting the humanities online.

However, as Prescott confirms,

“This may have been the case 20 years ago, but it is certainly not so now. Like everyone else, humanities scholars are feeling their way towards how they work in this online world and are uncertain how professional parameters will be reshaped, but the vast majority of humanities scholars engage in a form of online scholarship” (2011, p. 66)

This is the way of the world, and it is increasingly requiring scholarship of all kinds (not just the humanities) to embrace some element of digital technology.  I think that for the humanities in particular, digital technologies can help put the human back in humanities.

Which brings me to the second way in which Prescott thinks DHers have become consumers of digital technologies, a way in which I agree is not healthy for DH initiatives.   Prescott explains that digital technologies are, in some cases, being used (consumed) to consume technological sideshows (2011, p. 64) – they are not being used to advance scholarship in ansubstantial or mind-blowing way.   In some cases.

Using the Transcribe Bentham project as an example, Prescott makes it clear that digital technologies must be used in the humanities as more than just antiquarian homages (2011, p. 63) or retrospective “History” projects.  As he says, the Transcribe Bentham project is of no real value to advancing humanities scholarship unless the project (and any DH project) helps to advance scholarship beyond merely creating an online edition of someone’s written work (p. 63).  I agree that the use of sparse resources and scholars’ time must be dedicated to creating value-added, insightful, and dare I say it, groundbreaking projects.  I think Prescott does a good job in highlighting the danger in consuming digital technologies in this way.

Yes, some may argue that using digital tools in any way is good for business.  Yes, the integration of technology in the classroom may increase interest in the humanities, and may compel a greater number of students to become humanities scholars themselves.  But it may not.  And the time and effort invested in fighting for funding and ultimately, the re-structuring of many academic institutions’ internal structures (another theme present in Prescott’s work) will not be well-spent if the end-goal is to get more bums in seats (the problem of audience and mission).

So while Prescott gave the Bentham example as a potentially ill-use of resources, I think that the use of technologies to create things like digital storytelling projects could be considered a genuinely good use of DH resources.  Not only do these storytelling projects put the “human” back in humanities (just take a look at the Story Centre’s playlist of digital stories.  With topics ranging from adoption to cancer to refugees, how can humans not be at the heart of humanities?), but they produce new content and knowledge, and the possibility of advancement in many fields, even those outside of the humanities.  Digital stories offer insight into the human condition, historical events, political actions, etc. etc. etc., and these insights are more than mere “English” projects.

The lesson here is that digital resources must be consumed with the mission of progressive and value-added humanities scholarship in mind.

On commentators

The third role Prescott identifies as existing with in the world of DH is that of the commentator.  It emerges in the conversation through the idea that DHers are not being loud enough commentators, that they need to raise their voices in order to be heard.  It is only when digital humanities scholars allow themselves to be commentators, to take a step back from their creator (or consumer) roles, and just allow themselves to comment on current practices in DH, and to engage in communication with other scholars.

In a nutshell, this is the idea Prescott concludes his article with.  I think it is a particularly strong (and fair) conclusion to make.  By engaging in conversations and reflecting on the process of producing digital humanities projects, the human (and humanities) is being put back at the heart of digital humanities.

He ends the article with suggestions as to where DH(ers) can look for inspiration as to how become an inarguable success story.  Hint: it won’t be in “saving” humanities departments merely by attracting more funding and putting more ‘bums in seats‘.  No, it will be through taking a leaf out of other disciplines’ books, such as cultural and new media studies, and creating a space for DHers to theorize and reflect.  As Prescott concludes (quoting Rockwell & Svensson):

“theorizing, not a theory, is needed; we need to cultivate reflection, interruption, standing aside and thinking about the digital.  We don’t need to negotiate a canon or a grand theory, instead I wish for thinking about and through the digital community” (p. 72, 2011).

He goes on to say that DHers should think about the more abstract questions related to DH scholarship, rather than the tangibles of metadata and open source (not that they aren’t important.  However, there is a time and place to discuss them, and that time is not all the time).  Instead, he thinks that

“arguments about what scholars are currently interested in, and how digital humanities can transform intellectual agendas in the humanities, are much more pertinent in developing links with the key partners in creating digital resources” (p. 72).

Adeline Koh echoes this idea, and demonstrates that it is still a relevant point to consider today (Koh is writing in 2015, while Prescott is exploring the nature of DH in 2011):

“if you look through the projects that have been funded in the last decade you’re going to see a lot of repeated themes. Heck, even when you look at the roster for who is being invited to give DH talks and what they are talking about, you see many of the same names and the same topics. You’re going to see a lot of emphasis on tools. A lot of emphasis on big data analysis. A lot of emphasis on computation, and the power of computation. What aren’t you going to see as much of? Emphasis on why computing, the conditions under which computing is manufactured, a cultural analysis of the ideologies of computing. Why is that?”

Overall, I think Prescott does a compelling job in arguing that the conversations that take place within DH are just as important as what is (and apparently, how it is) being created.  He does an even better job of reminding us that no matter what the identity of DH is (or will become) the mission of DH initiatives should never be to save the humanities; only by first pursuing initiatives that truly aim to advance humanities scholarship will humanities departments come to be saved.


Additional References

Koh, A.  (2015, April 19).  A letter to the Humanities: DH will not save you.  Hybrid Pedagogy.  Retrieved from http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/a-letter-to-the-humanities-dh-will-not-save-you

Rockwell, G. (2004, August 31). Humanities computing challenges. [Blog entry]. Retrieved from http://www.philosophi.ca/theoreti/?p1⁄4544

Svensson, P. (2009). Humanities computing as digital humanities. Digital Humanities Quarterly 3(3). Retrieved from http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/3/000065/000065.html

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